Grin and Bear It

Paul Rudnick tosses out jokes like confetti in The New Century, an umbrella title for four one-acts that combine two old works with two new ones. The first three plays have main characters who are prototypes for gay heroes: They are resilient in the face of daunting adversity and determined to prevail over their circumstances while holding on to their humanity. In Pride and Joy a Long Island Jewish matron, Helene Nadler, recounts her relationship with her three children, whose sexual preferences are gay but still all over the map. "I am here to tell you, to prove to you, that I am the most accepting, the most tolerant, and the most loving mother of all time," she announces sternly, trying to make a virtue of her discomfort. Helene’s dealings with her offspring provide ample evidence of her claim. Her daughter is a lesbian mother; one of her sons is a male-to-female transsexual who is also lesbian ("Ronnie," she asks, "didn’t you take the long way round?"); and her second son is into leather and excretions.

Linda Lavin is brilliantly nuanced as the well-groomed Jewish mother, gradually losing the battle to maintain her composure and embrace the fringes of sexuality that her children inhabit. "So many people’s children, they hide everything," laments Helene, dropping her mask momentarily. "They live separate, secret lives. They’re like strangers. I love those children."

Mr. Charles, Currently of Palm Beach is a revised version of a 1998 play that was also part of a bill at the Drama Dept. in 2001. (That version didn’t include Mr. Charles’s fantasy about showering in Vietnam with John McCain.) In Nicholas Martin’s sharply paced evening, Peter Bartlett, who played the role in both earlier productions, is yet again the nightly cable show host who was banned from New York City for being "too gay."

"What causes homosexuality?" a viewer wants to know. Mr. Charles responds, "I do. I am so deeply homosexual that, with just a glance, I can actually turn someone gay." Mr. Charles is accompanied by his dim "ward," the hunky Shane (Mike Doyle, a stranger to body fat), who appears in oddball getups—a military man, Robin from Batman, and totally naked, providing a visual aid to a hilarious history of gay theater. Rudnick’s quips for Mr. Charles are worthy of Oscar Wilde: "A gay woman is not simply Paul Bunyan with a cat." And, reminiscing about his life, "Oh, there have been men, and boys, and Wedgewood." But Mr. Charles also knows that effeminate men are a dying breed in a gym-obsessed world. "I am the last of my kind," he says with wistful stoicism. "I shall perish, like the dinosaur. Unless, of course, Steven Spielberg discovers some ancient DNA from Paul Lynde and makes more."

In the monologue Crafty, Barbara (Jane Houdyshell) is a cheery craftswoman who is consumed by her passion. "I intend to create a series of commemorative plaques, saluting the history of American crafts," she says with pride, and recounts the various media each plaque will display, from colored gravel to macaroni collage on Michelob beer bottles. But her mania is also a refuge from the death of her son Hank from AIDS. She balked at accepting his orientation and still speaks in euphemisms about him, with a middle American reticence about intensely personal revelations. Houdyshell makes that inner conflict deeply poignant.

In the last play, The New Century, Rudnick brings all his characters together for a feeble valedictory in a New York City hospital’s nursery area, where Helene is watching over her grandchild. It’s a contrived situation, but the characters have by then provided so much pleasure that it’s easy to accept the improbability.

However, Rudnick raises serious concerns about the world that the infants in this new century will inherit, and he seems to backpedal from the moral authority and humanism that make Mr. Charles, Helene, and Barbara so vibrant. Here, Shane takes center stage and espouses a hedonistic philosophy of shopping and dancing. The last image of the characters boogeying is a silly and weak conclusion to an otherwise deliciously funny evening.

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